On Friday the last piece in the Senate election puzzle fell into place when the National Party held its preselection for the second position on the joint Coalition ticket in Victoria. Incumbent Julian McGauran prevailed in a field of four including Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who pursued his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for Trade Minister Mark Vaile. It is little wonder that the position was keenly sought, as McGauran is the beneficiary of an agreement which effectively reserves for the National Party one of the four to six Victorian Senate seats the Coalition can reasonably expect to hold, giving them the unloseable second position at alternating elections and the unwinnable fourth in between. On the strength of its own electoral merits the National Party has only been able to win two out of the 37 lower house seats in Victoria at the last three elections; of these, Mallee could well be lost when the Liberal Party is next able to contest it upon the retirement of member John Forrest, as the neighbouring seat of Murray was lost when Bruce Lloyd retired in 1996, while in Gippsland McGauran’s brother Peter faces an imminent threat from Labor.
For a party in such a position to be granted an automatic Senate seat it could never win from a separate ticket is an obvious bone of contention for ambitious Liberals. Part of the explanation involves a relic from a bygone era of Australian politics, the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP ceased to be a political force at the 1974 double dissolution election but has since managed to retain a loyal core of 1 to 2 per cent of the primary vote in the state of its origin. At the 1987 double dissolution election these votes were instrumental in delivering a sixth seat to the Coalition, and in ensuring that one of them went to McGauran who headed a separate National Party ticket. More recently, DLP preferences helped put Coalition third place-holder Kay Patterson over the line at Labor’s expense in both 1996 and 2001.
When the Australian Electoral Commission moved to de-register the DLP in 2002 after it refused to provide names and details for the 2000 members it claimed, the McGauran family’s help in funding legal action that prevented the deregistration from proceeding was widely seen as an astute political insurance policy. The wisdom of this appeared to be demonstrated on Thursday when Michael Harvey of the Herald Sun reported that "Liberal heavyweights including Treasurer Peter Costello and party state president Helen Kroger are believed to be behind a blunt ultimatum to the junior Coalition partner" whereby the Liberal Party would abandon the joint ticket arrangement if McGauran was not endorsed. The McGaurans’ support for the DLP may have been made with a view to maintaining the seat even if compelled to run from a separate National Party ticket, but it appears to have earned them enough gratitude that McGauran was able to bring to the table the promise of a straightforward allocation of DLP preferences to the Coalition ahead of Labor, in contrast to 1998 when Labor’s Jacinta Collins was rewarded for her opposition to euthanasia and stem cell research by being placed ahead of her third-place opposite number on the Coalition ticket, Tsebin Tchen.
McGauran’s brother faces an uncertain future, but for himself another term in the Senate is assured. However, the long-term decline of both the National Party and the Democratic Labor Party suggests that between now and 2010, the logic of a separate Liberal Party ticket will become irresistible.